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Lithuania: Bridging The Gap Between EU And Increasingly Isolated Belarus

Last month, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said his country was taking steps to reduce the growing international isolation of its eastern neighbor, Belarus. Lithuania is now seeking a formal mandate from the Council of Europe for talks with Belarusian leaders. Belarus has welcomed the initiative but says it would prefer to speak directly with the EU.

Prague, 5 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Early last month, Lithuania's prime minister, Algirdas Brazauskas, volunteered his country to serve as a mediator between the European Union and Belarus. The Lithuanian initiative, now under discussion at the Council of Europe, is seen as a step by the Baltic country to counter the creeping isolation of its southern neighbor.

Lithuania, which assumed the presidency of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers last November, has repeatedly cited as one of its aims improving Belarus's relations with Europe.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Belarus was granted special-guest status with the Council of Europe. But in 1997, after a Belarusian referendum increasing the powers of the president was judged undemocratic by the EU, the Council of Europe suspended Belarus's membership. The situation worsened after last year's September elections in Belarus. The day after the vote, the Council of Europe -- together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the EU -- called the campaign and election undemocratic.

Evaldas Ignatavicius, Lithuania's deputy minister of foreign affairs, says an official proposal on mediation will be submitted to Belarus as soon as Lithuania receives a mandate from the EU. The mandate could be announced as early as next week.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Ignatavicius said Lithuania supports direct dialogue between the EU and Belarus, but does not see any signs of that happening. "It does not look as if such a dialogue is taking place now [between the EU and Belarus]. As far as we know, the EU has formulated its provisions for the dialogue -- more press freedom, increasing the role of the parliament, abolishing the death penalty. But without Belarus, it will be impossible to push forward."

Ignatavicius says Lithuania does not expect quick solutions or speedy changes in relations between Belarus and the West. But, he says, opportunities for dialogue exist and must be maintained. The deputy foreign minister notes that as Belarus's isolation grows, the EU member states are getting less and less information about the country. He notes that only five EU states still maintain embassies in Minsk.

Last week, the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) decided to reduce its assistance for the country. EBRD President Jean Lemierre told RFE/RL, "The bank's board of directors has re-evaluated the situation in Belarus, and I have informed the president of Belarus [Alyaksandr Lukashenka] that we are ceasing our operations in the country's public sector. We are maintaining our financing in the private sector -- namely small and medium-size enterprises -- on the condition that they have no ties with the public sector."

Lemierre also said that Belarus has shown no signs of progressing with reforms and that, on the contrary, the situation in the country appears to be getting worse.

Previous efforts by the EU, OSCE and other Western bodies have failed to convince President Lukashenka to pursue a more liberal policy. How can Lithuania succeed where others have failed?

Gediminas Kirkilas, the chairman of the Lithuanian parliament's foreign affairs committee, says Prime Minister Brazauskas is hoping to establish a closer rapport with Lukashenka than others have been able to achieve.

In remarks to RFE/RL, Kirkilas said, "We really have the feeling that very often the Belarusian authorities have no idea what is going on, that what is being said about them abroad is not reaching the decision-makers at home." The Lithuanian prime minister, Kirkilas adds, wants to meet Lukashenka and "tell him frankly what fruits his policy may bear and what he should do."

The border between Lithuania and Belarus is 600 kilometers long and fairly porous. Lithuania is eager to avoid becoming a crossing ground for illegal immigrants to the West once it joins the EU, as it is likely to do in 2004. Lithuanian authorities are also concerned with the fate of about 30,000 ethnic Lithuanians living in Belarus.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry last month said it welcomes any attempt at further integrating the country into European affairs. The official government position on the issue, however, remains somewhat skeptical. Foreign Ministry spokesman Pavel Latushko said, "We are building our relations with the EU and the [OSCE] in such a way that direct dialogue is a priority. This does not mean, however, that we refuse to accept kind services offered by others."

Latushko said Belarus has yet to receive any official proposals from either Lithuania or Poland, which has also offered to mediate.

It is not the first attempt by Vilnius to act as a go-between for the EU and Belarus. In 1998, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus met with Lukashenka to urge him to take part in a number of EU projects involving cooperation between the border regions of Lithuania and Belarus. Belarus formally agreed but took no further steps. Other attempts have been made by Lithuania on both governmental and nongovernmental levels.

Some analysts question whether the Brazauskas initiative will really make a difference. Raimundas Lopata, who runs the Vilnius-based Institute of International Relations and Political Science, says bridging the gap between Belarus and the West is a good idea, but one that may be hard to implement. "Serious mediation is possible only on the condition that Lukashenka takes steps toward democracy. There are no signs that Lukashenka is inclined to do anything resembling liberalization."